Wendover Woods 50, where do I start?
I wasn’t going to write about Wendover Woods 50, in fact, I’m only now sitting down, a few months post-race, with some words to say.
Pre-race I just wasn’t really feeling it.
Earlier on in the year, my whole focus had been on the two South Downs Way races, I put literally everything I had into them, training harder & smarter than I ever had done before. It paid off & I was delighted to hit both my goals at SDW50 (sub-9 & top 10) & to finish my first hundred at SDW100.
After SDW100 in June, I was both physically & mentally exhausted. I had a bit of downtime, 10 days of complete rest (I look back now & acknowledge that wasn’t long enough) & then I eased back into running with lots of slow bimbles on the trails.
Only I never really quite got going again… I ran fairly constantly over the summer, I mean can you beat sunny summer trails, but it was hard work. I felt slow, sluggish & way off the pace.
I always maintain that pace is not important, especially with trail running, it’s more about the experience & the enjoyment, but pace, strength & fitness are all interlinked. When I’m at my fittest & strongest my pace is naturally faster so struggling to hold half-marathon pace for four miles made me feel as if I was losing my hard-fought fitness.
I’m fully aware that this is completely phycological & there’s no way that I could maintain the intensity of the first five months of the year for the remaining seven. But it also meant that I never quite got into training for Wendover Woods. Every Monday I would think to myself, right, this week I’ll get back into a routine. I’d plan out my week, runs, strength sessions, hills. I’d go through the motions without ever really focusing. I was missing my top gear & just meandered through sessions.
I realise for many runners this would constitute training & it is, but I am a planner. I like a schedule, I like to have a target, a goal & something to work towards. Losing my sense of running direction messed with my mind & I began to doubt myself & wonder if I was really capable.
I wasn’t mentally prepared for the race & before I even stood on the start line I saw no reason to hang onto the story. I had no nerves, no anxieties, no worries. I remember the start lines of my South Downs way races earlier in the year when my stomach has been filled with fluttering butterflies. I had none of that this time. Nothing. I’d written the run off before I’d even started.
But as I have learned time & time again, running has a habit of teaching you more than simply start lines, finish lines & race times. And as with all races, Wendover Woods does have its own story. One, looking back a few months post-race, that I do want to remember. So here goes.
Starting at 9:30am I decided to drive up the morning of the race to save on accommodation costs. I normally wouldn’t even consider this but I felt so far removed from WW that I had none of my usual worries about getting stuck in traffic & missing the race start. I picked up Rachel, my Striders club mate, her partner Ben & Helen, who was volunteering, on route. In the early hours of Saturday morning, it took barely any time at all to get from South London to North & before long we were pulling into the muddy trig field at race HQ.
As always I ended up being early, so spent the hour or so after I’ve registered & passed kit check catching up with friends. I leave it as long as possible to take my warm clothes off, throwing my jacket into my car as we head down to the start line.
I deliberately start near the back with Spencer, Con & Nikki. This is not a race, there is no need to go steaming off into the distance in my usual kamikaze manner when the starting gun goes. I still feel removed from the whole event. I might be standing among 250+ other runners but I feel as if I could be standing anywhere. The excited start-line atmosphere does nothing. I don’t remember the countdown or the starting gun but pretty soon we’re off.
I press start on my watch & don’t look at it again until I cross the finish line.
I’m going to do my best to describe the route whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. Although, as I said to someone the day after the race, I may have just run five laps, I wouldn’t have a clue where to go if someone asked me to direct them just a few hours later. Thankfully, as with all Centurion races the course is excellently marked.
Wendover Woods is no more than five square miles in size but somehow Centurion managed to create a ten-mile loop. I wonder what drugs Drew was taking as he designed it. Imagine Cross Country on steroids & times that by one hundred & you get a little feel for WW. I have never run anything quite so bizarrely bonkers & I’m not sure I ever will (unless I run Barkley). The Night 50km runs it three times, WW50 five times & WW100 TEN times!
The easiest way to describe the course is;
Jump over tree routes
Hang onto tree branch as you slide down the Power Line
Sprint across the field
Up some more
And then some more
Use your hands to climb the next hill
Hammer it down a hill (mainly because it’s so steep you can’t actually stop…)
Cross runners coming in the opposite direction
I’m sure up some more
Down the Buelevard of Broken Dreams
And I forget…
Railing against the years
See the trig field
Speed up in excitement
PB & jam sandwiches
…and go again!
I had a small idea of what to expect having done one lap a year earlier & then working with Stu March, the photographer, at the race in 2018. For those who hadn’t recced the route, you could see the shock on their faces during the first lap!
Lap one I took fairly steady. This was all about getting a feel for the course & the conditions. I ran most of it with Spencer & Con, chatting as we went. With a few weeks of rain pre-race, it was quite muddy in the woods & some of the ups & downs had the potential of becoming treacherous as the day progressed. I’d been debating shoe choice all week; did I go for the grip of the Speedcross or the cushioning of the Hoka? I opted for Hoka & bar a few slippy decent when I longed for more grip it was the right choice. There were too many hard, gravelly tracks for the Speedcross. Whilst I may have flown with more confidence down the muddy descents, my feet would have been shredded in a couple of laps by the rockier paths.
I finished the first lap in a little over two hours, ran into the CP & pretty much ran straight out the other side grabbing a couple of sandwiches on my way past.
Being a lapped course, we ran through race HQ at the end of every lap. Here there was a Check Point with all the usual Centurion food & drink and also access to a drop bag (& even your car if you wanted it!).
Of course, because there was the option of a drop bag, I had one & filled it with all sorts of ‘just in case’ items. Spare shoes (the Speedcross in case I changed my mind mid-race), a complete change of clothes (why I don’t know), hats, gloves, buffs, snacks, a spare ‘spare’ headtorch. A flask of coffee. A set of poles Spencer lent me (I’d been panicked by Twitter talk during the week that I would need poles, I didn’t)…
Yeah, didn’t use ANY of it bar the flask of coffee.
When will I learn?
With a CP every five miles, you didn’t need to carry food & drink & as a result mandatory kit was a lot lighter than for most races. Many of the speedy front runners just had small waist packs with their waterproof, base layer, foil blanket & headtorch. As usual, I still carried the kitchen sink.
I started on lap two, now running solo as I’d moved away from Spencer & Con towards the end of lap one. I knew what to expect & settled into an easy rhythm. Pushing the pace a little, running & walking on feel. It was almost perfect running weather, cool without being cold. My long sleeve t-shirt & shorts were the perfect clothing choice, even on the last nighttime lap. I felt good, I was enjoying it. I began thinking that maybe I’d like to do WW100. Please note this was on lap two. Ask me again after five laps…
Wendover really is a beautiful place & I was relishing running in the rural surroundings alongside the challenge of the course. The ten miles had everything I love about running in it. Challenging climbs, hills to throw yourself down. Obstacles to jump over. You had to be 100% focused on what you were doing at all times.
Pretty soon lap two was coming to an end. I ran through the HQ CP again, ignoring my drop bag once more & started on lap three.
Lap three was not the one.
Just outside the trig field I slightly stumbled (I was focusing more on my peanut butter sandwich than on where I was putting my feet) & tweaked my ankle/foot. It hurt. I’d sprained it. Torn it. Broken it. My race was over.
I hadn’t, it wasn’t but your mind plays dirty tricks on you in a mid-race stumble. It was sore, I’ll give you that & it did make me slightly more cautious during this lap.
Apart from the stumble, I don’t know why I didn’t enjoy this lap. I think it was my mind playing games with me. Trying to get my head around the fact that I’d already done two laps & I still had three to go. I’d done 20 miles but still had 30 to go. It would soon be getting dark. I fell into a bit of grump. Hating life, hating hills, hating Wendover.
I saw Helen for the last time at the mid-way CP. She would be finishing her volunteering shift before I came past again. I had a bit of a grumble. I was not a happy bunny. I don’t remember much of the second half of lap three. I just made myself keep going. One foot in front of the other, up, down, up down…
If lap three wasn’t the one, lap four was definitely the one.
Lap four I LOVED.
I started my fourth lap still in daylight. I wasn’t expecting this, I was expecting it to be dark by lap four. Though I had no idea what time of day it was, the light was rapidly failing. It gave me a boost to still have some light in the sky for this lap. Now he didn’t have small children climbing all over him I stopped for a quick selfie with the Gruffalo, knowing that it would definitely be dark the next time I passed him.
I put my headphones in to listen to some podcasts. Interviews with Fearne Cotton, Hillary Clinton, Sebastian Faulks, Lemn Sissay & Elizabeth Day. Interesting conversations in my ears, rather than music, entertained & made me think as a ran. I now knew the course. I knew where I was going. I knew the hills weren’t that steep, I knew I could do it. This was now my time & I was reveling in it.
My headtorch went on a couple of miles in. I left it for as long as possible until I really couldn’t see more than a few steps in front of me. I enjoy the solitude of nighttime running in the woods. I find it quite calming & I wasn’t at all concerned that I was by myself in the dark. In fact, I got a little annoyed when I crossed paths with other runners as it broke the magic spell! I was in my element, trotting along, listening to my podcasts, just me, myself & I. And the wood mice that scurried across my path every now & again.
The lap sped by & pretty soon I was approaching race HQ for the fourth time. A few more sandwiches & another swig of my sugary coffee I changed my headtorch as the batteries were failing far too quickly on my primary torch & I was soon on my way again. 6:30, 7pm. I wasn’t sure. I’d forgotten to even glance at the clock as I ran into HQ.
Lap five. This was simply about getting it done. It started in the same positive vein as lap four. I didn’t see another runner for what felt like miles but was not at all concerned. A few miles in I started to feel the familiar waves of ultra nausea. It comes to me in most races, today somewhat later than most for which I was thankful. I knew I wouldn’t be eating again, I also knew I had taken on sufficient fuel during the first 43 odd miles to see me through to the end.
I still haven’t completely mastered eating for ultras, although I did do much better at WW than I have on many. I’m fine for the first 20, 30 miles but then I struggle to take on food. I was still eating at the 40-mile mark here, in fact, someone laughed at the pile of sandwiches I inhaled! I basically fuelled the whole run on PB & Jam sandwiches with the odd cheese sandwich thrown in for variety. Helen, Jane & Kerry at the Hale Lane CP even made me special ‘margarine-free’ sandwiches!
I arrived at the Hale Lane CP for the final time. Jane commented that I wasn’t as cheery as I had been on the last lap. I was feeling quite rough. I drank a couple of cups of coke which seemed to settle my stomach & I subsequently had a good few miles coming out of the final CP. The distance was beginning to take its toll & I was willing the miles away. The final few seemed much longer than they had on the first couple of laps, a downside of knowing what was coming!
With the exception of nausea, I was surprised at how much of the final lap I ran. When the terrain allowed it I was still trotting along at a fairly decent pace.
I kept nausea at bay until the final mile when I started feeling quite sick again. It slowed me right down & I had to stop a few times to pull myself together. I saw the race HQ in the distance & knew that I was only a few minutes or so away. Somewhat cruelly you have to run almost around the outer edge of the field before climbing a style (yes really) into the field & across to HQ. The final stretch across the field was squelchy with mud. I ran, picking up my pace. My legs still felt pretty good. Damn that stomach. And I crossed the finish line.
12:11 & a few seconds. 10th lady.
What did I love about it?
I loved the nature of the course, it was EXACTLY the kind of running I enjoy. It was challenging. Interesting. There was variety in terrain. There were runnable sections & not so runnable sections. It was like a giant Cross Country.
Most of all I loved having zero pressure. And that was all my doing. Because I wasn’t really prepared for this race, I wasn’t feeling it & had no plan, no strategy, no agenda. I simply ran on feel. Pushed it when I felt good. Eased off if I needed a rest. Ate a sandwich when I fancied one.
Apart from glancing at my heart rate a couple of times (completely pointless with those hills in all honesty) I didn’t look at my watch once. I had no idea of time or pace. I had no concept of where I was in the race. I even forgot to look at the race clock on my final lap so I couldn’t even make a rough guess.
Zero pressure. This was a REVELATION.
I’m not knocking running to a plan, running to a pace, of checking with the tech how you’re doing. I mean it worked for me at SDW50. But where I was at WW, physically & mentally, taking away that pressure worked wonders.
I simply enjoyed my day running in the woods. No more, no less & I know I finished having done my very best on the day. And you can’t ask for more than that.
I hung around for about an hour after the race. Chatting to Stu, waiting for Spencer, Rachel, Ben & a few others to finish. Learning from my mistake at SDW100 I had something to eat & drink before jumping in the car & heading home.
I think I might have a new favourite race!
As always an excellent show by the Centurion team & all the volunteers. I know from working alongside Stu last year that this is a challenging one for the volunteers; it’s November, it gets dark & cold & they are standing around, essentially in the woods for several hours to help us runners. As always grateful & indebted.
Slight change of focus for me now as I look to have a bash at a spring marathon & see if I can bring down my PB nearer to where I think it should be. I haven’t properly trained for a marathon since 2014. Yes, I’ve run a number since then but they’ve either been whilst ultra training or off the back of an injury. It will be interesting to see what I can do if I manage to get a proper training block in. Then it’s the big one, North Downs Way 100 in August. I know I said never again during SDW100 but you didn’t believe me, did you!